Are Hanson & Medlen the next Smoltz & Glavine?

Braves' pitching prospects lean on each other

For much of the last three years, Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen have shared the same apartment, the same dream and the same marquee as two of the Braves brightest pitching prospects.

Their stories are joined at the shoulder, not always a comfortable arrangement.

There was Thursday night, for instance.

Even as Medlen made his major league debut, a breakthrough turned breakdown, Hanson was mowing 'em down back on the Gwinnett farm. Across 30 miles of interstate they still were being measured one against the other.

Medlen, inexplicably losing all sight of the strike zone, walked half as many batters in three innings (five) as he had in two months of Triple-A starts. Two pitches were more than wild, they were feral. His night was over with no outs in the fourth, after plunking the Colorado pitcher with the bases loaded.

Hanson meanwhile strong-armed the Toledo Mud Hens, giving up one hit and striking out nine in six scoreless innings.

All the while you could almost hear the muttering of those unmoved by the team's reasoning for calling up Medlen first: Why not Hanson instead?

Or you could read them on the AJC's Braves blog, just moments after Bobby Cox took the ball from Medlen.

"Who else comes up before Hanson and chokes?" wrote one particularly impatient contributor.

As general manager Frank Wren has said, when the Braves are sure the spot in the rotation is more than temporary, they will look to Hanson. And much of that depends upon Tom Glavine's recovery.

Thursday night was sure to add to the Hanson groundswell, inevitably at Medlen's expense. But strangely enough, as the two young pitchers deal with the fickle gusts of expectation, one of their biggest assets is the fact they have each other.

Shared vision

First impressions hardly foreshadowed the making of a baseball buddy story.

Hanson and Medlen have climbed the same rungs of the same treacherous ladder, sharing the bright lights of Danville, Va., and Pearl, Miss., along the way. They've pondered together the one great question facing all young males on their own: "What is it tonight, Domino's or Papa John's?"

But back in 2006, as they battled each other in Southern California's Orange Empire Conference, they were at best snarky rivals.

"In junior college, when I first saw him, he wore long, tight pants, had that long hair, I thought he looked lame," Medlen recalled early last week. "Like any rivalry, you say, 'Man that guy sucks' — even if he doesn't."

They had grown up within an hour of each other in the Los Angeles sprawl, but never met until their college days. Medlen, a shortstop/closer at Santa Ana College, faced Hanson, Riverside College's ace, a couple times that '06 season. According to various accounts, there was no clear winner.

"You got to give Kris a little bit of grief," Hanson said. "I struck him out a couple times. He couldn't get a hit off me any other way, so he started bunting on me."

"Had to take advantage of the big, slow, non-athletic, red-headed dude," Medlen responded.

Signed by the same scout in the same year from the same lower left-hand corner of the country, Hanson and Medlen were thrown together from the day they reported to rookie camp in Orlando. From neighboring lockers, they began a dialogue. It has continued almost non-stop during their rapid ascent through the Braves system.

"Kris is kind of like another son of mine," said Hanson's father, Tom. "Every time we visited and went out with Tommy, it was Tommy and Kris."

By the time they got to Triple-A Gwinnett this season, the arrangement was routine. They'd room together — now in an apartment near the new Gwinnett Stadium. As usual, Hanson had a car, Medlen would ride shotgun.

Not alike, yet alike

Recognized as one of the best prospects in baseball, Hanson pretty much vacuums up the publicity. He is the prototype pitcher, 6-foot-6, possessing poise and leverage and statistical backing.

Though Medlen actually built some superior numbers at Gwinnett this season (5-0, 1.19 ERA), the comparative weight of their press clippings may never even out.

"He always jokes around, says I get the publicity because I'm tall," Hanson said.

They are nothing alike physically. Medlen, generously listed as 5-10, is the one most likely to get carded, even though at 23 he is a year older. Nor are they on the same personality page. "Tommy is kind of a quiet, mellow kid," said Medlen's father, Ray. "Kristopher is to a point, but can go to the other side of the line, according to the situation."

Off the field, they still are sharing a simple, if not exactly monastic, existence. Only last week, when the Braves called him up and faced the commute to Atlanta, did Medlen rent a car. The two didn't even have a TV in their apartment until Medlen's girlfriend recently gave them an older model. Next step, cable.

It is generally conceded that Medlen is the sloppier of the two, the one least concerned with appearances. Hanson, he jokes, is "the pretty boy who cares more what people think."

You have to look a little deeper for the similarities that are the roots of their friendship.

They are both sons of the working class — Medlen's father a truck driver for FedEx, Hanson's a retired iron worker who helped build California's famous freeways. They both have inherited from them a certain seriousness of purpose.

"Both of them are so zoned in on pitching and want to do so well," said Hanson's father. "It has really helped being close the way they are."

A 'Glavine-Smoltz' thing?

No matter how the pressures of making it to the majors — and sticking — may pull at them, they have been good for each other. They have been feeding their mutual ambition almost from the day they signed. And maybe even more so now.

"It's cool talking baseball, we both feel like we can compete up there," Hanson said. "I've always wanted to pitch in the big leagues, but always felt like it was far away. Now ... I feel like it's really close. I feel like I could pitch there right now.

"That's the weird thing, saying, 'Yeah, man, we could definitely do that, we could definitely pitch in the big leagues and get guys out.' "

Their final place in baseball is undetermined. Hanson is still the hot prospect in the wings. There are musings that Medlen, a reliever for much of his career before blossoming as a starter, may be fated for the bullpen.

Anything is still possible. Anything.

"They have spent a lot of time together," said Medlen's Santa Ana College coach, Don Sneddon. "They really know each other. Maybe it could be a Glavine-Smoltz kind of thing. I'm sure the Braves are looking for something like that."

Bottom line: "We see each other pitching in the big leagues," Medlen said.

And that single shared vision is all that matters now.